A separate issue is the impasse between Israel and Syria over the occupied Golan Heights, a strategic plateau seized by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war. Attempts to restart peace talks have foundered over Syria’s insistence that Israel commit in advance to withdrawing from the territory, a move Israel has rejected.
“On the bilateral front, it makes no difference who will be in power in Syria,” said Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry who heads a group advocating Israeli-Syrian peace. “No possible successor to Assad will give the Golan to Israel as a gift.”
Gold, the former Netanyahu adviser, said that given the current turmoil, “you don’t know if you have a partner willing to come to terms,” and that in considering its moves, Israel “will have to err on the side of caution given the total uncertainty it faces, from the Turkish border down to the Suez Canal.”
Still, a change of leadership in Syria or a weakened Assad regime could present opportunities that the United States and Israel should explore when the dust settles, according to Uri Sagi, a former chief of military intelligence who headed the Israeli negotiating team in talks with the Syrians from 1999 to 2000.
“I would suggest that the Americans take advantage of this crisis in order to change the balance here, namely to get the Syrians out of their intimate relationship with Hezbollah on the one hand and the Iranians on the other,” Sagi said.
That could be done, Sagi said, by “making the Syrians an offer they can’t refuse” of economic and political support that would shore up the stability of the regime in return for realigning its policies.
What’s more, he added, it does not appear that the Muslim Brotherhood is driving the current protests or that it would emerge as a dominant force among a population that on the whole is not religiously radicalized.
So “if I were a decision-maker here, I would look to take advantage of the opportunity,” Sagi said of the current unrest. “It is not necessarily bad for Israel.”
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.